Human rights and the fallacy of cultural relativism -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Human rights and the fallacy of cultural relativism

The controversy about the universal versus cultural relativist basis of human rights has been raging since at least 1945 or 1948 when proclamations where made by the UN on human rights. I believe human rights are defensible on a universal basis and cultural relativism is a negation of the philosophy of human rights. I will advance my thesis presently but first we look at the concept of cultural relativism.Cultural relativism holds that each culture is a unique specimen of the historically formed collective personality of a people. The beliefs, values, symbols, practices, modes of communication and the various organised and institutionalised forms of interaction which constitute a culture give shape to stable patterns of thinking and behaving. Consequently notions of rights and obligations prevalent among a people are culturally specific.The cultural relativist standpoint, therefore, rejects the assumed universal nature of modern human rights. The bottom line is that to claim a universal basis for a set of ethics and norms that has historically originated in a particular cultural milieu – the West – is a contradiction in terms. In political theory, the roots of cultural relativism on ethics and norms are indeed very long. Aristotle can be considered its most famous exponent in the ancient period. He subscribed to the general Greek standpoint that the purpose of life is to promote good and to fight evil. However, what constituted good and evil could only be established empirically. He observed that differences and variety existed both among people and in nature.

Goodness was that which brought happiness to people. Therefore there could be different ways of living happily. What is good for one person may not be good for another. But since human beings are social and political animals they can enjoy happiness and realise their potential only in society. Each society represented quite unique historical experiences and traditions. Therefore members could enjoy happiness only within specific cultural systems of societies. Consequently, a subjectivist or communal understanding of goodness was inevitable. He, however, advocated the golden mean as the universal principle that all societies should follow while defining the good in their particular ways. Now, Aristotle’s thesis makes a lot of common sense. The great diversity in natural endowments and capabilities, the situations and circumstances in which individuals and groups find themselves and the vastly diverse historical roots of societies do suggest that happiness would vary from case to case. Further, that if to the pursuit of happiness was added to the rule of moderation then societies could be more resilient than if they were constituted by extremist individuals and groups.

However, a problem with Aristotelian reasoning is that happiness by itself is not a reliable measure of the good and not every human act can be based on the golden mean. For example, happiness cannot be accepted as an excuse for enjoying cruel and bloody sports. Once upon a time Romans did enjoy themselves thoroughly when prisoners were thrown before lions and tigers or fought each other as gladiators. Further, there can be no moderate standard of speaking truth. One can either be honest or not. To speak a half-truth and be honest is quite illogical. One can also wonder if the freedom of speech can be a freedom to speak half-truths or not to criticise things and ideas that one finds objectionable. Similarly, either a state accepts that men and women are equal or it does not. There cannot possibly be a golden mean between equality and inequality. Thus an Islamic state discriminating between the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims cannot reasonably claim to be practising the golden mean between equality and inequality of citizens. With regard to a social system the same type of objections can be raised. Thus for example one can wonder if the Hindu caste system is compatible with the golden mean in any meaningful sense. Also, what would be the golden mean between apartheid and a social system that rejects racism?

From a modern point of view, at least in terms of rights, the golden mean cannot be applied to equality on a general, abstract level without grave violence being done to its normal meaning. More importantly, it relies dangerously on subjective happiness as the measure of goodness. The classical question would be: whose happiness corresponds to the general good? The ruling class and the ordinary people rarely see happiness in the same way. Can one instead vote on subjective happiness according to some subjective criteria without harming the rights of individuals and minorities? Suppose somebody were to arrange a referendum asking Europeans if they were happier if all non-whites or Muslims were to be expelled from Europe? And suppose a majority voted yes. Would such subjective happiness not constitute a grave form of human rights violation of individuals and minorities that are not considered European in some religious or ethnic terms? One can even wonder what would be the way to resolve disputes if two sovereign cultures were to insist on cultural relativism as the sole basis for resolving disputes. In other words, how do we solve problems arising through from cultural relativism versus cultural relativism?

A lot more can be written to show that cultural relativism is not consistent with human rights. It is not even consistent with the principle of sovereign nations that underpins the interaction between states under international law. Having said this, I must admit that the diametrically opposite standpoint that universal reason alone can be the basis of human rights is questionable. Had universal reason been a reliable source of human rights the philosophers would have arrived at a set of human rights long, long ago. The truth of the matter is that not until 1948 was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in place and declared as a commitment of civilised peoples and nations to treat human being, irrespective of caste, creed and colour, as equal and with inalienable rights to enjoy dignity, freedom and security. Thus the roots of human rights is the universal experience of autocratic rule, economic exploitation, war, persecution and arbitrary rule application that compelled conscientious and enlightened human beings to exercise reason and arrive at a set of universal human rights. The reason the West gave the lead on human rights is not its particular cultural heritage or its cultural relativism but the fact that in the last few centuries the West had been guilty of the most massive violations of human rights and therefore the argument in favour of putting an end to such a state of affairs also had to come from there. The writer is an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at Stockholm University in Sweden.
Source: The News
Date:12/23/2006